The outbreak of coronavirus pandemic has reached dangerous proportions all over the world and brought great difficulties in its train. The prolonged situation is taking its toll on human lives, global economy and education. The educational institutions have gone into unscheduled closures in response to WHO’s call for international pandemic action such as social distancing, home-quarantine, self-isolation and lockdown to prevent community transmission of the disease. UNESCO has given a ballpark estimate that 1.5 billion or more than 90% of the students in about190 countries in the world are stuck at home. The highest ranked universities like MIT, Oxford, Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, Caltech, and Chicago are also laden with the threat COVID-19 has posed to education. The Harvard Graduate School Professor Fernando M. Reimers cautions, “The pandemic is going to cause the greatest disruption to education opportunity that the world has experienced in at least a century.” It is not an overstatement to say the closures and lockdowns may play havoc with the academia in the world.Since there is a slim chance to get rid of the situation before long, the governments and educators are grappling to work out a solution to the problem to help minimise the impact of the calamitous situation on education. It has been suggested that an alternative mode of education should be there for students placed on lockdown in a bid to ensure sustainability in the academia. Because the closures of the institutions however temporary, must make them suffer a major setback in the implementation of the academic calendar and plunge deep into session jams.
Universities in Bangladeshi also have fallen victim to COVID-19 outbreak more or less. All universities have been declared closed since 26 March 2020 and shall stay closed till September 2020 if the situation continues unabated, declared the premier herself. The private universities, mostly run by tuition fees, seem to have been doubly affected by the pandemic. They are anticipating huge financial losses to be incurred by non-payment of tuition fees caused by the suspension of academic activities and uncertainty about the upcoming summer semester enrolment. The great bulk of tertiary level students are studying at the private universities many of which may be threatened with continued existence by the financial crisis. Our Education Minister Dr. Dipu Moni is deeply concerned about the problems besetting the public and private universities and is using her best endeavours to overcome them. At a recent virtual meeting with, among others, the Deputy Minister for Education Mohibul Hasan Chowdhury Nowfel, UGC Chairman Prof. Kazi Shahidullah and the vice chancellors representing public and private universities, she has taken half a dozen decisions in favour of maintaining continuity of the academic activities at the universities by way of online teaching. These are all indeed very good decisions and a successful outcome is not beyond the realms of possibility provided that we have to act on them in right earnest clearing the hurdles we are faced with.
Though some universities have started conducting online classes on their own, we have yet to develop any infrastructure for online education suitable for both the teachers and the students. Besides, all the teachers are not skilled at taking online classes and many are even reluctant to do it. However, to make them passably good at online teaching is no big deal. But to get all the students connected to the Internet has appeared to be the biggest challenge. A large number of public university students are fighting shy of the online measures on the pretext of being cut off from Internet access and financial crisis. And it will not be very effective to run the online teaching activities only with the ones who are willing to and who are inside the range of Internet connectivity. The inequality of opportunity may dampen the spirits of the ones dropped from the world of virtual education and thereby vitiate the true spirit of the emergency academic move. The global experts are also apprehensive that the implementation of online education system on a portion of student population, however larger, create educational inequality and put poor students at a distinct disadvantage compared to their well-off peers. This would be far removed from what is enshrined in UN’s Education For All (EFA) objectives, Global Goals (SDGs)-4 (Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all), and other education-related UN declarations that Bangladesh conformed to.
The private universities, however, can conduct online teaching activities more easily. Their students are mostly coming from well-to-do families and have the ability to buy all essential tools and devices for virtual learning and examinations. But it will not be reasonable to draw a parallel between the experiences of the private universities and those of the public. Nearly 70 per cent of the public university students come from impoverished parents and are admitted to the universities only on merit. Most of them scratch a living from private tuition which has also come to a halt at the moment. To participate in the virtual classes they must have their own devices and Internet access. How would it be possible for them to have a good reliable computer or a laptop or even a smartphone, the necessary computer peripherals and Internet access at their own expense when they are in dire straits? How far are they mentally capable of doing online classes under the shadow of gloom and depression caused by the financial difficulties, the sudden discontinuity in academic life, the considerable uncertainty about return to normality and the apprehension of delay in career?
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning,” said Winston Churchill. I would like to echo Churchill and say at the core of my argument that despite all circumstances whatsoever, the necessity of online education at this moment in time is without parallel.
As an instrument of social and economic development, online learning is fast becoming the essential part of the mainstream education system. Mind-blowing developments in information and communication technology have revolutionised the methods of education and research. Yesterday’s education system based on the Dewey decimal library, the chalkboard and the classroom is today’s ICT-enabled smart education. ICT has brought to us the facilities of online libraries, the interactive digital whiteboards and the virtual classroom where students can watch lectures at home on the computer. And all these are not new to education sector in Bangladesh. Education in the country has thrived under the dynamic leadership of the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Her Government has successfully achieved the goals of Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP), conducted Quality Assurance activities at the public and private universities and is now working for the acceleration and transformation of higher education through a project called HEAT (Higher Education Acceleration and Transformation). In addition, she has established Bangladesh Accreditation Council with a view to developing the quality of higher education in Bangladesh. However, the machinery of the government for the promotion of higher education cannot be confident of a successful outcome if the universities stay closed for so long and if something is not done to make up for the loss.Bangladeshi universities should adopt a down-to-earth policy on education in the time of corona pandemic. We should not make overambitious plans to impose a system at the universities overnight, nor should we gloss over the problem ignoring the ICT-mediated and time-tested method of virtual learning which is essential in crisis situations of this sort. As a matter of fact, the government has to strike a balance between the absolute necessity for an alternative method of teaching and the practical problems, which is a slippery job though. To bring all our public universities under one umbrella is a hard nut to crack. They suffer from ‘many men many mind’ syndrome and the older ones tend to reserve their rights to stay alone on the pretext of having autonomy. That’s why a few months ago, the time-befitting bid for introducing a central admission test system at the public universities ended in a divided decision.
This is not also a major stumbling block. There is still plenty of scope for unity in diversity. Despite their right to dissent, all universities, it is presumed, are motivated by a strong sense of purpose and discharge their duties in their own sweet ways. So it can be expected that they will see eye to eye with one another in regard to escaping from the clutches of session jams. And to this end, they must not deny the necessity of a suitable alternative which ought to be online teaching by all accounts. Given the gravity of the situation, this sounds quite reasonable. The move towards online teaching can be implemented in two phases. In the initial phase, the course teachers should manage to connect their students to any of the readily available online platforms just to render student counselling services and conduct homework, assignments, quizzes and other forms of assessment to prepare them for exams to be taken immediately after the calamitous situation is over. That must be better than nothing. And in the final phase the universities should fully develop an online education infrastructure professionally and permanently which will run in parallel with the prevalent traditional system. They may be used both separately and jointly as the situation demands to keep all the universities running.
Universities are like bicycles. If you don’t ride and keep pushing the pedals, they will fall. We want our universities to continue to run, not to fall.
Dr. Rashid Askari is a writer, columnist, fictionist, translator, media personality and current Vice Chancellor of Islamic University, Bangladesh. Email: [email protected]